I can't remember the last time it was so difficult to find good information about a city's food scene. Crazy as it sounds, I actually expected my search for Rotterdam food blogs to be successful-- I mean, we do live in an age where new food apps and websites launch each day!
Sadly, I didn't find the Rotterdam food blog I was looking for, and sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp were pretty bare in content. I suppose I could have given up, writing off Dutch cuisine as so many others seem to have done. But I don't let down so easily. I wanted to know about local specialties and where to find them, and I was up for the challenge.
During my seven days in the Netherlands I visited Rotterdam and Amsterdam, so I don't have information about other regions. I'll have to save their delicacies for another trip! Luckily, after lots of research I did find some good restaurant recommendations, Dutch food websites, and even recipes-- but trust me, it wasn't easy. Hopefully these recommendations will help future travelers.
Dutch Cuisine: From Rustic to International
My search for typical Dutch dishes quickly lead me to discover that the traditional Dutch diet was barebones and rustic. Breakfast and lunch were often very similar, consisting of bread with toppings such as Dutch cheese or cured fish. Dinner consisted of mashed potatoes (sometimes mashed with another vegetable such as carrots), and a small portion of meat on the side.
Fast forward to the present day. Dutch cuisine has been influenced by the many immigrant groups that have settled in The Netherlands. Rotterdam is especially international, with Spanish tapas bars, Italian eateries, Chinese restaurants, and Surinamese food among the many choices for dining out.
What to Eat in Rotterdam and Amsterdam (and Where!)
For the first few days of our trip we were in Rotterdam, where we were convinced the Dutch didn't eat breakfast. Why? Because all of the breakfast places opened between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning! This was difficult for us since the conference we were attending started at 9:00 a.m. Without our coffee we are not nice people!
Later, we asked our new Dutch friend Julia about breakfast time. She explained that most Dutch people eat breakfast at home, and that the cafés only open for people's mid-morning coffee and snack, rather than for their breakfast. That explained a lot!
Literally translated as "wrong coffee", this enormous bowl of coffee is the biggest latte I've ever seen. Filled with half steamed milk and half coffee, you may not want to indulge in this big guy before a long meeting.
Where: Hoppers is the most famous coffee in town. It was delicious, though the service was a bit poor. Tip: No Visa cards are accepted!
Given their affinity for bread with toppings, it comes as no surprise that bagels are quite popular in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and other Dutch cities. While, in my opinion, nothing I tried came close to the delicious New York bagels I grew up with, the combinations for toppings surpassed the average deli back home. The one I was eyeing but never got to try? Horseradish cream cheese with Wagyu pastrami and homemade pickles. Yum!
Where: Bagel Bakery was a lovely little café with a wide selection of bagels and toppings. We ate there almost every morning of our stay.
I live in the land of fresh squeezed orange juice and I feel lucky each time I order a sweet, delicious glass. But sometimes I miss being able to order other fresh juices when out, especially quality bottled ones to grab on the go. Bottled juices in Spain are simply awful, except for a few new brands that still aren't widely distributed. But in The Netherlands we were constantly surrounded by beautiful glass bottles, filled with 100% natural juices. The most famous were Appelsap and Perensap (apple juice and pear juice). Both were incredibly delicious, nothing like the awful apple juice I grew up with in the states (and always hated!).
Where: Any café or convenience store is sure to have at least one juice on offer. Cafés will likely offer freshly juiced combinations as well.
As mentioned, lunch is much like breakfast in the Netherlands. But we managed to try a lot more than the usual fare (even if we looked a bit like tourists).
As a former Dutch colony, Indonesia made its mark on Dutch cuisine forever. Nowadays, cities like Rotterdam have many Indonesian restaurants, and it seems that most café menus also include one or two plates that would be considered Dutch-Indonesian fusion food. For more information about this type of cuisine check out this helpful guide to Dutch Indonesian cuisine.
Where: We tried this savory cuisine at Satebar Indonesia, and experienced a tasty meal, good service, and a nice ambiance. There may be slightly more authentic places in the city, but this one was pretty good.
The sandwich combinations at local cafés were endless: carpaccio with cream cheese, capers, parmesan cheese and arugula, curried egg salad with red onions, buffalo mozzarella with pesto and sundried tomatoes, and many more tempting combinations were prominent on some local menus.
Where: There were many cafés around town but we enjoyed the sandwiches we ordered from Bagel Bakery in Rotterdam and the delicious tea sandwiches from Roomservice Café by Hotel Droog in Amsterdam (a really cool place!).
Each day of our conference lunch began with a piping hot cup of soup. Given that it was freezing while we visited, it was a welcome sight and all were delicious!
Dinner is served at 6:00 p.m. (though you'll find people eating until around 8:00 in most restaurants). It is definitely the heaviest meal of the day, although with all of the variety in Rotterdam it could be as heavy or as light as you want.
Fastfood Centre: Food from Surinam
Never would I ever have guessed that my most enjoyable meal in a long time could come from a place called Fastfood Centre. But it did. And it wasn't quite the fast-food that I would normally expect. Offering dishes from Surinam, the only thing that makes this place fast food is the fact that the homemade dishes are prepared ahead of time, making service quick and easy.
We stumbled upon this casual place in Rotterdam's small Chinatown district; it is right on the main street. Despite our reservations with the name, we saw that it was packed with locals and decided to give it a try. I am so happy we did. Here is what we ate:
Clockwise: Fried banana with rich peanut sauce; chicken curry with boiled yucca, hard boiled egg, green beans, and pancakes; sweet and sour pork fried rice with egg; the entrance to Fastfood Centre.
It seems that the Dutch like to snack, as many menus include an entire section dedicated to snack foods. Seeing the 3€ price for a plate of mediocre olives made me realize how lucky we are here in Spain, where most restaurants provide delicious olives free of charge!
Everyone recommended that I try Bitterballen while in Rotterdam, so I did-- various times. I must admit, I didn't fall in love them-- but they were pretty good! Bitterballen are round, deep-fried croquettes filled with shredded beef and a béchamel sauce. Just like here in Spain, they were originally a poor man's food, a solution for leftover scraps from stews. The Dutch dip the bitterballen in a spicy mustard (which I loved). A plate of these with some beers would definitely satisfy most people! By the way, bitterballen aren't bitter, the word refers to the fact that people used to eat them along with a bitter aperitif.
Where: The best bitterballen I tried were definitely at the Hotel New York in Rotterdam. Take a seat at the reading table in the bar and enjoy.
Belgium gets all of the credit for their crunchy cones of fried potatoes, but Dutch fries are just as good! We didn't want to go overboard with this not-so-healthy snack, but did try a few varieties while in the Netherlands. Tip: Order the Patats Oorlog, literally "war fries". Topped with saté sauce and mayonaise and covered in chopped raw onion, it may sounds strange but they were delicious!
Where: We actually tried the best fries in Amsterdam, at a chain called Chipsy Kings. Tripadvisor reviews rave about a place called Bram Ladage in Rotterdam, which we will certainly test out when we return!
Our desserts after lunch and dinner tended to be small, think a cup of berry yogurt with fruit or a small ball of chocolate mousse. But on our own we discovered some sweet afternoon snacks that were worth trying.
The appeltart was a wet sort of apple pie that reminded me of bread pudding. I found it quite heavy and would have preferred it hot-- but perhaps I didn't get the best version!
Lemon Meringue Pie
I love my lemon meringue pie and luckily it seems like the Dutch do too! There was always some sort of lemon pie and also carrot cake on nearly every dessert menu we saw.
Where: Loos Café was a classic, old fashioned café where I had a delicious piece of lemon meringue pie followed by a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc (I was hard at work investigating!).
A large handful of mint and some hot water. Simple and delicious and very popular in Rotterdam. I added a sugar cube to the mix and enjoyed this hot drink on a cold rainy day.
Where: I'd recommend the Hotel New York again for its fantastic views of the port. In Amsterdam I enjoyed one at the funky Hannekes Boom.
Salty black liquorice-- as strange as it sounds it is adored by the Dutch. Alas, as much as I love sweet black liquorice I just couldn't develop a taste for the salty stuff. Our guide Sebas, however, inhaled them!
Where: Grab a box at any supermarket.
Must Try Dutch Foods for Next Time
Sadly, we didn't make it everywhere we wanted and some signature Dutch foods were left off the itinerary. Here they are anyway!
So very sad. Time ran out before we could find the famous hot stroopwafel, thin waffle cookies filled with sweet syrup in the center. Luckily we did get to try the pre-made variety (which were addicting enough) but we never found a place for hot ones in Rotterdam.
Where: You can buy the pre-made variety at any supermarket (we regret not stocking up) and in Amsterdam you can get hot ones at the famous Albert Cuypmarkt.
Technically I tried these at our hotel, but wasn't impressed. I have faith that other ones just have to be delicious, so I'm not counting my first bad experience! These silver dollar pancakes are usually served with butter and powdered sugar (yum) and sold on street cornets. Hmm, we did a lot of walking and never saw any-- help anyone?
Where: You tell me!
Proof that cuisine is always evolving, this signature Rotterdam dish was invented in 2003 by a hairdresser (thus the name which translates to hairdresser in English). He supposedly used to go into a nearby Turkish restaurant and ask for "a bit of everything" which resulted in this dish. Possibly the best drunk food ever invented (yet to be proved since we didn't try it in Rotterdam), Kapsalon is a mix of french fries, shwarma meat, melted gouda cheese, salad, and garlic sauce. As good as it sounds we just never got tipsy enough to try it…
Where: Any kebab shop in Rotterdam.
Haring (Raw Herring)
Despite coming at the right time of year, we never got the chance to try Rotterdam's famous herring (despite multiple tries!) Everyone told us to head to Schmidt Zeevis, but the fish shop's opening hours just didn't agree with us! That said, we will definitely be back to try a whole raw herring covered in chopped onions, which they say you must hold by the tail and dangle into your mouth. Sounds fun!
Where: Schmidt Zeevis is supposedly the place, and also is said to serve excellent plates of sashimi.
Overall, the food in the Netherlands proved challenging to discover, but when we finally found what we were looking for we really enjoyed each and every bite! If I had to choose favorites I would go with the bottled 100% organic apple juice, Surinamese food in Rotterdam, and the fresh salads and sandwiches served for lunch.
Have you ever visited a destination where truly getting into the food culture proved a bit difficult? And which of the Dutch foods above would you most like to try?